The story of a police shooting: Are there answers?

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Attorney Evan Bariault uses a monitor to show the area where CPR was performed during an inquest into the shooting death of Che Taylor which involved Seattle police officers Michael Spaulding and Scott Miller on Thursday, February 2, 2017, at the King County Courthouse in Seattle.

As Officer Michael Spaulding recounted the day he shot and killed Che Taylor, he kept returning to the fact that Taylor was well known to the police. He and his partner that day, Scott Miller, called him “Che T” from the witness stand many times, almost like they were old friends.

But while they knew him well — well enough to use his name as they ordered him to put his hands up and get on the ground — they were certainly not friends. “He was a threat to society,” said Spaulding, speaking during a King County fact-finding inquest. “There was no way Che Taylor was going to get away from us that day.”

Taylor’s past has been the subject of intense debate since the day he was shot. His friends and family skewered the media and the police department for printing the details of his history, accusing them of painting a narrative in which Taylor deserved to die rather than first trying to see him as a human being.

It’s undeniable that his record complicates how his case is viewed. Taylor had a rap sheet dating back to the 1980s. And his arrests were not for minor offenses, but for sex trafficking, burglary and rape, all of which lead to significant prison time. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) had pegged him as a “career armed criminal,” forbidden from possessing a firearm.

All this meant the entire criminal justice system had been following him closely for quite some time. In the weeks leading up to his death, Seattle police had monitored his social media accounts. They knew he had recently purchased a black Dodge Magnum. In hundreds of pages of Department of Corrections records provided to Crosscut, the judicial system tracked not only his movements but how often, where and when he masturbated and even what he thought about as he did so, all subject to polygraph tests (a questioning practice that appears consistent with U.S. Department of Justice guidelines for management of sex offenders).

As the inquest into his death unfolded over seven days — a standard fact finding procedure in the aftermath of police involved shootings — the courtroom struggled to define exactly how much of this information should be admissible. Sometimes, the information was determined to be clouding the jury’s ability to examine the shooting itself; it was then stricken from the record when a witness said too much.

But other times, the officers and attorneys were allowed to draw from his past when it was seen to be relevant to the decisions they made.

The courtroom also struggled to define where the lines of duty should be drawn for officers. It is simultaneously true, as witnesses testified, that the officers’ jobs were to act on Taylor’s perceived violations of the law while also keeping in mind his safety. In that balancing act, the jury is asked to consider, did they act too hastily on the former and do enough on the latter?

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Inquests are strictly meant to determine the series of events that lead to death. The jury is being asked to answer 52 yes or no questions, only about what did or did not happen that day, not about what should have happened. Scrutiny of policy was not allowed; there were no questions of whether officers de-escalated the situation.

The jury will begin deliberation on the questions Thursday morning.

In the end, the narrative that emerges from those answers is for the interpretation of the public. For those looking for any kind of definitive “right” or “wrong,” an inquest is not the place.

The proceeding took place in a cramped courtroom on the ninth floor of the King County Courthouse. The benches, hard like pews, were split down the middle as at a church ceremony: On one end the friends and family of Che Taylor sat, mostly black faces. One woman wore a shirt with Mr. Taylor’s face on it and the years of his life on the back. And when Officer Spaulding first took the stand, someone whispered, “oh, god.”

On the other side, officers and supporters of Spaulding and Miller sat, mostly white faces. They were stoic, nodding occasionally when an officer would describe his thinking, cringing when attorney Corey Guilmette mishandled the bolt-action rifle used by Spaulding at the scene.

In many hours of testimony, the narrative of last Feb. 21, when Che Taylor was shot, emerged.

Officers Spaulding and Miller were dressed in plainclothes, surveilling an apartment in North Seattle they suspected of being a drug house. Their specific target was not Che Taylor, but a different man.

They’d been sitting in their unmarked cars for hours, watching people come and go from an apartment just south of Lake City Way, when they saw the Dodge Magnum pull up. Spaulding said he recognized it from Che Taylor’s Facebook posts. As he was looking at his phone, checking Taylor’s record, Officer Miller said he saw a gun on Taylor’s hip as Taylor got out of the car. Spaulding, knowing that Taylor was a felon, took offense at this. “It seemed incredibly brazen not only that he had a firearm, but that it was an external firearm on his waist,” he said.

But Spaulding, who would fire six of the seven shots killing Taylor, never saw the gun himself.

Because ATF had pegged Taylor as forbidden to have a gun, he became their new target: The plans of arrest they had made for a resident of the house were transposed to Taylor.

They put out a call for backup, specifically from a marked unit so Taylor would not be mistaken as to who was approaching him. For about 45 minutes they waited as Taylor disappeared into the apartment, emerged again and then disappeared momentarily.  They saw him again in a white Ford Taurus, which he'd entered when out of their sight.

At that point, the officers planned to arrest Taylor as he walked from the Taurus back to his Magnum parked nearby. The timing should have gone that the marked cars whipped into view just as he was in open space.

But as Taylor was leaving the Taurus and after the marked calls were told to move in, Taylor stopped and turned to talk to the driver of the white Ford. “We were going to wait until he was in the middle of the roadway and have the assisting arrest team block his retreat,” said Spaulding. “Instead of shutting the door, he ducked back in and started talking.” But the marked car was already barreling down the street and Spaulding and Miller moved in.

Spaulding came around first as he and three other officers were shouting both “put your hands up” and “get on the ground.” At first, said Spaulding, Taylor seemed to be complying. But Spaulding said he saw Taylor’s right elbow go up as if he was pulling a gun. Spaulding fired. Taylor likely died almost immediately, as medical responders testified.

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This was the bare narrative. The attorneys sought to either defend or poke holes in that account through endless stream of points: Why didn’t the officers wait to arrest Taylor? Could he understand their commands? How sure could the officers be that he was drawing a gun?

Attorneys James Bible and Corey Guilmette, representing the Taylor family, hammered on these questions, clearly trying to show that there was a breakdown in the police operation that led to a more dangerous arrest, with Mr. Taylor in the doorway of the Taurus. They also stressed that Spaulding never saw the gun and no one ever saw a gun in Taylor’s hand — only in a holster and then, 45 minutes later, on the floor of the car. Using a picture of the gun found in the car by police, the attorneys tried to show that the dust on the gun was proof it had been there for a while and that it may not have been the same gun. “In that 45 minutes he could have given away that gun,” said Bible. "He could have sold that gun.”

And perhaps emphasized most of all was that Taylor was overwhelmed by the number of commands he was hearing and the guns in his face. His movement, the result of confusion, could very well have been Taylor trying to comply, they argued.

But Spaulding and Miller disputed each point, saying no arrests go exactly as planned, that they often give the commands “put your hands up” and “get on the ground,” that they were sure he was drawing a gun and, while they wished he hadn’t died, they feared for their lives.

The facts of this case — including Taylor's past — have made it impossible to examine it in a vacuum. Bible tried to drive the point home that there were judicial systems in place to deal with Taylor's behavior and that his death was a breakdown of that system.

But Spaulding and Miller maintained a solid defense that policing is not a science, saying over and over again that no two situations are alike and this one was "fluid." They assessed the situation and, right or wrong, reacted.

The inquest jurors, when given the opportunity to submit questions, asked several questions that suggested they were thinking critically about the officers' approach. Several wondered if it was mandatory to arrest Taylor and what other methods could have been used to take him down.

But even when their answers are presented, questions of what should have happened will linger. Internal Seattle police investigations found Spaulding and Miller acted appropriately, but for those who think the policies are wrong to begin with and need reform, neither the SPD reviews nor the inquest will provide closure.

  

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